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Former Prime Minister John Major

BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: FORMER PRIME MINISTER JOHN MAJOR, 17th JUNE, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

DAVID FROST: John what do you think are the most important lessons that the Party's got to learn from this defeat?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I think what needs to be done - it's been two serious defeats in the last four years - and I think what we now need to do is to do two things. Firstly, address comprehensively, across the whole range of policies, what policies are appropriate for the future. And secondly, perhaps something people have overlooked thus far, and that is look at the changes in the structure of society over the past 20 years or so for I think that is a significant reason why we had such a low turnout in the General Election.

And there's a real danger, that the main political parties are now arguing about yesterday's menu. So I think we need to look at that as well as policy.

DAVID FROST: What's on yesterday's menu and what should be on the new a la carte?

JOHN MAJOR: While I think you need a much greater understanding of the way people actually wish to live their lives. I mean if I can take a practical example: anyone who goes round talking to lots of Conservatives, as I do, will see many senior Conservatives who've been members of the party for 40 or 50 years talking about the alternative lifestyles of their children or their grandchildren with an affection you wouldn't have had years ago. There isn't the old censorious attitude. Now I don't necessarily condone that, the alternative behaviour, but I observe that people are much more tolerant today than ever they have been before. And these days I don't think they so much elect governments to govern them as to be their servants - they expect the Government to reflect their needs, perhaps to a greater extent rather than lead them than sometimes has been the case in the past. And I think the political parties are still perhaps too much bound up in traditional thinking. So I think that some good can come out of these two big defeats providing the Conservative Party has the courage and the wit - and I think it will have - to really begin to think from the bottom upwards, both on policy and upon social change.

DAVID FROST: Most people feel that it's the election after next is the first one that the Conservatives can win - do you feel that?

JOHN MAJOR: No I think they can win the next election, of course I do yes. If you look at the turnover from votes between 1992 and '97 repeat that again and you're going to have a Conservative majority at the next election. No, no I certainly don't despair of the next - of the next General Election.

DAVID FROST: Did William Hague ask your advice, because he followed your example on one thing, may be not on your previous prescriptions, but he decided he must have felt a kinship when he made a fast exist?

JOHN MAJOR: Yes I saw the stories that William had phoned me and I'd advised him to resign are complete nonsense. We didn't discuss that at all at any stage - that's not true.

DAVID FROST: Not true?

JOHN MAJOR: No.

DAVID FROST: But you sympathise with him doing what you had done?

JOHN MAJOR: Yes I know better than any man in England exactly how he felt. And it's all very well for people to say well he should have carried on but the reality of the circumstances he would have found himself in, if he had tried to carry on, I think meant he had very little alternative but to do what he did and I think he did it with great courage.

DAVID FROST: I don't know whether lightening or whichever substance it is does strike twice but I mean would you say, looking to the future, that William Hague could one day be leader again or ...?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I think William - I mean I think those people who think William should leave politics and forget about chances of high office, I don't agree with that at all. I mean here you have someone who became leader of the Conservative Party at a very young age, arguably too young, but who has immense ability and is perhaps the best parliamentary orator that we have seen in Parliament for a very long time. He's also highly intelligent. Because of the tremendous campaign that has been waged against him from many sources I think people underestimate William Hague, underestimate his capacity for recovery and completely underestimate the role he might play in the future. Now he will probably take a backseat for a while - and it's his decision, I don't know, but he may well do that - but I hope he won't leave public life, I hope he'll stay in public life, I hope he'll contest the next election and will be re-elected and I can certainly see him serving in a senior position in the Conservative Party in the future and I hope he does.

DAVID FROST: And the campaign against him, you meant, was also from people within the party as well?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I don't think it's terribly productive to go over that but I think there were people who were less than helpful during the last four years or so and now we have to put that behind us. One of the things that has gone wrong for the Conservative Party is not just policy it is tone. And by tone I don't only mean the tone by which the front benchers address the public - though I think that is part of it - I also mean the tone of dispute within the Conservative Party. Now people do not like that. And in particular Conservative voters do not like that. And when they hear these internal disputes and they hear the tone in which they're conducted it's a complete put off for millions of people who are naturally attracted to the Conservative Party. And this started some years ago over Europe. The way in which some people express their opposition to the last Conservative government's European policy was chilling in its certainty and I think that was very off putting for people, some of those people have now left the Conservative Party. But the past has gone and I don't want to tread over ...

DAVID FROST: What the right wing Euro-sceptic approach to Europe?

JOHN MAJOR: Well those who were - there's a perfectly rational case to be made against much of European policy, a perfectly rational case. What is not sensible is to conduct it in the sort of shrill strident tone of chilling certainty that a minority of the Euro-sceptics did, many of the Euro-sceptics didn't but a minority did and the public didn't like it. And the Conservative vote in the country didn't like it. And I think it caused us immense difficulty and I think that spilled forward.

DAVID FROST: But we - the Party did miss, I guess, the major figures who didn't feel able to take part because of the policy on Europe, I mean ...

JOHN MAJOR: Well it goes back ...

DAVID FROST: żI'm sure with Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd and Chris Patten and all those people were missed in this campaign weren't they?

JOHN MAJOR: Well it goes - well they're very experienced and a very important part of the Conservative Party. I mean Chris couldn't have taken part really he's a European Commissioner but he's a great loss to the Conservative Party. But I think those people will come back once the tone changes and I mean they are still there, they have been silent but they're still there.

What I was referring to when I talked of that chilling certainty of a minority of the Euro-sceptics was the fact that for some people they almost seem to put up a 'No Entry' sign to the Conservative Party unless they were ideologically pure in their hostility to Europe, well that isn't a sensible way to conduct affairs. There are many things - I personally am not remotely convinced that we should go into the euro in the near future, it may be appropriate for us at some later stage but in the near future, but I'm absolutely convinced that we need much more liberalisation across Europe, we need financial reforms, we need to free up the energy market - a whole range of things - where the Conservative Party is quite united and agrees that has to happen across Europe, without which Europe can't compete with America, can't compete with the rest of the world. And to get ourselves hung upon the semantic point of a single currency, where in my judgement the decision will be much later than many people are now expecting in any event, is just plain silly.

DAVID FROST: And in fact you had predicted a year before if we abandoned the centre we could end up in permanent opposition - in fact you said it in our last conversation and so in that sense, John, is it true to say that the Tory party is really battling for its very existence at the moment?

JOHN MAJOR: No I don't think so. I mean if you take the Conservative Party vote at the last election we lost very heavily in seats but our vote in 1997 and in 2001 was infinitely higher than the Labour Party vote in 1983 and 1987 - they got 25-27 per cent of the vote we were significantly above that. So the answer to that question is no.

What the Conservative Party has got to do is to recapture the understanding that it wins elections from the centre right. Now there are people who say well the Labour Party have moved to the centre so you have to have clear blue water, well that way lies permanent opposition. The elections are won in the battle for the centre, we win from the centre right but we have to engage with the Labour Party in the centre as well - over health, over education, over transport, over the issues that really determine the votes of most people in this country, not determined by Europe for most people, but by those central issues - health, education, the economy. And if we return to the centre right and engage in the battle of ideas and policies in the centre right then we have every chance of beating the centre left and I think that we will.

So that is the direction in which a Conservative Party has no choice but to go and also the direction that I think all the main leadership contenders will seek to take us.

DAVID FROST: When you say all the main leadership contenders obviously what you've been saying about the centre right and those points is closest to what's been said by Michael Portillo, in fact, since his conversion.

JOHN MAJOR: Well Michael seems - well Michael seems ...Well Michael seems to have gone on a long journey from where he was to where I was. And I thoroughly welcome that. I think it is a good idea to re-inhabit the centre ground and I think the things that Michael are saying, as an indication, I think that he has learned that, I think he has learned a lot. So far as I know it is genuine. And I think that is absolutely right for the Conservative Party. And it is from that posture, whether it is Michael or someone else is a matter for the electorate to determine, but it is from that broad political posture that the Conservative Party will come back into government.

DAVID FROST: And you said in the middle there you are - you are convinced of - that Portillo mark II is as sincere as Portillo mark I?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I have no reason to believe not. I think as a young man Michael had a particular ideological bent and I think the ideological bent preceded his brush with the real world and I think the real world has had an impact and I think let us push aside the old certainties that he had and now look at the policies that he is now beginning to enunciate, the policies and attitudes he's enunciating. And that is much more towards the traditional role of the Conservative Party in the past and I think that is a welcome conversion.

DAVID FROST: Are you going to make public your preference when the candidates are lined up?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I have no intention to do so at the moment. When we know who the candidates are people might guess whom I would vote for but I am only one vote amongst many now - I'm not in the parliamentary party so I don't have a primary vote in determining who the last two candidates are. I am a member of the Conservative Party and always will be so I shall certainly have a vote from amongst the final two candidates. I will make up my mind when I see who they are.

DAVID FROST: In terms of Ken Clarke if he'd been leader, if he'd succeeded you as leader, would there have been a different result to the last election and do you hope he puts his hat in the ring again?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I don't think you can look back and say that and I think it's just divisive for me to go back and say well if this had happened, if that had happened there would have been some different outcome - it didn't. And I'm not interested in recriminations and I'm not interested in looking back either at the last parliament or the parliament before that. What I am interested in is making sure the best of the talents in the Conservative Party - the Portillos, the Clarkes, the Shepherds, the Ancrams actually come together in the Conservative Party to present a face to the electorate at large that the electorate will like.

I remember that wise old politician Willie Whitelaw once saying to me, the first thing to do in politics is to ensure in your party that have people whom the electorate like and can relate to they will then forgive the inevitable mistakes that you may make. And I think it is very important. They're all people I think who are liked and respected in the country and I wish to see them forming the core of the Conservative Party in the future. And others as well. Sadly Malcolm Rifkind lost his seat, I'd like to see Malcolm go back in the House of Lords where he can take a high profile in a future Conservative shadow cabinet - Shadow Foreign Secretary or whatever. And you begin to have a team that in quality outmatches the Government and that is very important.

DAVID FROST: With the possible other candidates do you think there is still probably an excessive emphasis on Thatcherism in the Tory party or not?

JOHN MAJOR: Well Thatcherism was absolutely right for its time and absolute wrong for this time. So I think we have moved on and I think most of the party. That doesn't destroy the affection and respect for what was done in the past but we can't live in the past, we have to live in today and prepare for tomorrow. So I don't think we can look back. Now I personally hope that some of the marginal candidates, some of the more inexperienced candidates, will decide that this is not the time for them to throw their hats in the ring, I think they should sit out this election and let more senior members of the party contest the election and determine who is going to be leader. I think there are some able people in the wings whose names are peripherally mentioned but I think it is too early for them and I think it would be a mistake for the party and a mistake for them personally if they allowed themselves to be sucked in this debate by a few enthusiasts, lose and then forever find themselves as a focus for this or that faction within the party - no good for the Conservative Party as a whole and I don't think any good for them individually either.

DAVID FROST: Well that's what a lot of people feel very sympathetically about William Hague, that in fact it was all too early for him last time and he'd have been better off coming in at this stage, you know.

JOHN MAJOR: Well I know people may think that, I'm looking forward not back. I think William will be back, I hope so.

DAVID FROST: Pardon?

JOHN MAJOR: I think William will be back as I said earlier, I think he will come back into the Conservative Party at a senior level at some stage in the future.

DAVID FROST: So what other qualities your new leader needs? What are the three qualities?

JOHN MAJOR: Well I don't know necessarily three but let me tell you some things that are essential. I mean he is certainly going to have to make good contact with the instincts and hopes of the electorate as a whole. Much more importantly makes contact with the instincts and hopes and with the fears of the electors - so he's got to do that. Secondly, he has - absolutely essential that the ideological blood that has been spilt over the past decade or more stops and the Conservative Party conducts itself in a different manner and brings people together. Those are the two key points. The third thing - since you invited three I will give you a third - I think we actually have to go back to the very basics of policy - education and health. I do not by - meaning going back to the basics of policy - mean two or three clever Tories sitting there with a wet towel round their heads, I emphatically don't mean that. I think we actually have to go absolutely back to the roots of education and health policy, look at what we are delivering, what we would like to deliver, see what the gap is, consider how that gap might be met by discussing it with the professionals, discussing it with the think tanks, going round the world and seeing what other people do and then presenting a blueprint to the electorate that says here is what we would like for our education system, here is what we can deliver in the traditional ways and here we can cover the gap. This is what we can do.

DAVID FROST: So that - yes, the issues - that's the agenda - should be strong on health, strong on educ ...

JOHN MAJOR: It's even more so ...

DAVID FROST: ... rather than asylum seekers and crime.

JOHN MAJOR: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean there are millions of people in this country who have come to this country through the centuries seeking sanctuary. People bucking the system fine but the genuine asylum seeker is one of the most wretched and miserable people anywhere in the world and we have to make it clear that for the genuine asylum seeker - those poor wretched people who've lost everything and had nothing - that we are the sanctuary tomorrow that we have always been in the past, we have to make that clear, the tone must make that clear, the reality is that it is the case, the tone must make that clear.

So these two defeats were very bad for us but they have offered us an opportunity. There is the bodies - as the bodies are cleared off the field, through the smoke, you can actually begin to see what we can build up for the future. So that is what I wish to concentrate on - building that up on the centre right of politics with fresh ideas for the sort of problems Britain are going to face in the next 10 and 20 years and putting aside the ideological divisions of the past and looking ahead to the positive improvement of the nation's wellbeing in the future.

DAVID FROST: And if there are members of the party this morning who are watching you this morning and thinking hey that makes a lot of sense, that's the sort of guy we need, if they came and asked you to have a second innings what would you say?

JOHN MAJOR: No of course not. Everyone has their 15 - everyone has their time in the sun, I have been through politics and I don't think you can come back and I don't intend to. But I do think people are beginning to see the past a little more clearly. And many of the policies that are now becoming common place, that the party are enunciating now, were very much the policies I followed under a good deal of attack at the time during the 1990s.

So I hope we can realise that the government that raised taxes by the smallest amount in the last 25 years was the government that had Ken Clarke and Norman Lamont as chancellor. Our tax rises were much less than the government of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson as chancellor and Geoffrey Howe as chancellor and infinitely less than the government led by Tony Blair with Gordon Brown as chancellor. So despite the old cheap remark we didn't lose our tax credentials at all.

DAVID FROST: And you were - you said to us last time that - that you were not planning, certainly not in the foreseeable future, to accept a peerage, which is obviously still the case, now that you're no longer an MP how are you going to divide up your life?

JOHN MAJOR: Well there's lots of things I'd like to do David, that I've started to do. I'm doing some work in business, I'm doing quite a lot of work for charities, quite a lot of work for sport, I've got lots of invitations to lecture and I'm going to do some writing. So quite a wide spread of - quite a wide spread of activities. Things in the hinterland of my life that I've never had the time to do during the political years I now will have the time to do and I'm looking forward to doing it.

DAVID FROST: What's in the hinterland?

JOHN MAJOR: Well err...

DAVID FROST: Hobbies and passions and ...

JOHN MAJOR: A lot of - a whole series of passions. I think people, by and large, know my love of cricket.

DAVID FROST: Yes.

JOHN MAJOR: I don't think they know how much I love rugby or athletics. I don't think they know how much I love music - Norma has educated me in opera but a whole range of other music as well. I don't think they understand the love and affection I've always had for books, you can't walk in my house without falling over books. So there are a whole range of things. I love travel, I've spent a lot of time travelling in the last four years and will spend more in the next four years. So much to be seen and done that I have never had the opportunity of seeing and doing and it's going to be fun.

DAVID FROST: John it's always a pleasure, thank you very much.

JOHN MAJOR: Thank you David.

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